Habits: good or bad, we all have them. In fact, they influence every part of every single day, from what we say to how we say it to what we eat and do and even when we do those things. Why is it that some habits seem like they should be easy to control while others seem so ingrained that no amount of will power could possibly alter them? Do we become our best selves through nature, habit or instruction? Aristotle seemed to think that the behaviors that occur without thinking provide evidence of our truest selves.
In The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do in Life and Business, Charles Duhigg lays out the case, through poignant research studies from neurologists and countless examples from organizational experts, that people have unrecognized trained habits and those habits can be changed. Duhigg contends that we make invisible decisions every day that we consciously chose at some point in time. We’ve just stopped thinking about them and have continued to make those choices. It has become a formula that our brain follows. If we change that formula and become prepared in our habits, we can then fulfill on any intention.
Duhigg does not provide a secret formula to adjust your habits as there is not a one-size-fits-all formula.. What Duhigg does provide, through various types of examples, is the proof that habits are driven by cravings and the understanding of why they exist and how they function. The crux of this book is the frame work to how habits work. Why is this so crucial? Once you understand habits, you can get on with the business of transforming the ones you despise.
Identify the Routine
There is a loop at the core of every habit that involves a cue, a routine, and a reward. Routine is the most obvious of a habit; it’s the behavior I want to change. For example, let’s say I have the habit of going to the coffee cart every afternoon and purchasing a $3 cappuccino. I’ve tried everything to alter this habit, but nothing seems to be working.
Experiment with Rewards
Now it’s time to think about what rewards you are getting from your habit. For my habit, is it the energy boost I get from the coffee? Is it socializing at the coffee cart? Is it the change of scenery? Take a few weeks to collect some data. Change up your routine every day and then record the results. For example, I could walk a different route and not buy coffee one day; the next, purchase a cookie instead. I could drink the coffee at my desk one day; the next, eat a banana while socializing. The goal is to try to figure out which craving is driving the routine by testing 4-5 different rewards. Jot down the first 3 things that come to mind when you’ve completed the task. They could be emotions, reflection, or random thoughts. Then set an alarm for 15 minutes after you’ve jotted your thoughts down to ask yourself if you still feel the need for that coffee on the days you didn’t purchase it (in my scenario). If I still wanted coffee, I could conclude that maybe it was the boost of energy I was craving. If I didn’t, then maybe it was the social interaction or a break from work that I was truly after.
Isolate the Cue
What cues might be triggering your habit?. For my habit, am I bored, hungry, lonely, tired, or have low blood pressure? This is the hardest part because there is so much happening when our behaviors are unfolding. I should ask myself why do I buy coffee every afternoon around 3:30pm? What triggers that behavior? Is it because everyone else is going at that time or that is a standard break time or that I feel I shouldn’t consume caffeine after 4pm since it might keep me up at night? Scientists have recognized that cues fall into 1 of 5 categories: location, time, emotional state, other people, and immediately preceding action. This takes some of the guess work out. Therefore, the moment the urge for your habit hits you, you should jot down the answers to these 5 questions. Where are you? What time is it? What is your emotional state? Who else is around? What action preceded the urge? This will help you see the patterns to discover your cue. My answers might be: At my desk, 3:30pm, sleepy, no one, just completed a project.
Have a Plan
Hopefully, you now recognize the loop and can make a plan to change the behavior to give your brain a new formula to follow. For me, I realized that upon completion of a project where I had isolated myself to do the work, I craved a pat on the back before moving on to a new task. I saw the cue (completion of a lengthy project), I did the routine (get coffee) and got the reward (a break before beginning a new project). I found the reward was equally satisfying if it was socializing with someone for a few moments, having a snack, or even stepping outside for fresh air and sunshine. It didn’t have to be coffee for me to feel satisfied. Consequently, I was able to make a new plan to cut down on my $15 a week habit.
My Plan: When I complete a project, I will find someone to chat with for 15 minutes. If no one is available, I will go outside for 15 minutes to enjoy some fresh air. If the weather is unfavorable, I will eat one of the pre-bought healthy snacks at my desk. Change is hard and I did fall off the wagon a few times because I wanted something warm and steamy. So I added tea bags to the pile of snacks in my drawer and I got back on the wagon. Before I knew it my plan became automatic. Now I save $60 a month and feel such a sense of accomplishment.
Information taken from: Duhigg, C. (2012). The power of habit: Why we do what we do in life and business.
New York: Random House.